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Adopting automation for cost-efficient track monitoring

In this blog, CEO of Smart Component Technologies, Nick Koiza looks at some of the ways smart monitoring provides cost savings for railway companies.  


As Network Rail enters a new control period, CP7 will set out its operational and financial strategies up to 2029. These will want to make the best use of the Government’s £43.1bn commitment to funding the operation, maintenance and renewal of the rail infrastructure. While the headline figure over the five years of the control period may seem like a great deal of money (and it is), it will be impacted by inflation, and comes with cost-saving conditions attached. 


We have seen that automation has proved to be a major cost-saving factor across many industries, and track maintenance is one where smart monitoring can return significant savings to rail companies like Network Rail.  


Savings from adopting automation 

Automating track inspections with smart tools that permanently monitor track and substructure conditions alleviates major health and safety concerns and also delivers massive savings to rail companies. 


Maintenance engineers, both at Network Rail and our other customers have a very difficult job. Their lives are made harder by the fact that they can't get on the track whenever they want. For safety reasons, ‘Red Zone working’ has been stopped. This is where engineers were allowed on the track while trains were running. Now they need to gain possession of the track, which invariably means there need to be no trains running. 


Visual inspections need to take place across the entire network infrastructure, including areas where there are no issues. They’re time consuming, potentially harmful and, importantly, are not the only jobs that maintenance engineers have to perform. Using smart monitoring solutions releases maintenance engineers’ time to allow them to focus on other responsibilities. 


Automating track inspections with smart tools that permanently monitor track and substructure conditions not only alleviates the health and safety issues, it is also hugely cost-effective, delivering massive savings to rail companies.

 

Smart automation takes the pressure off overstretched teams. Rather than replacing a track maintenance engineer, end-to-end IIOT solutions such as SWiX, effectively become a highly productive, extra member of staff. 


Savings from avoiding delays 

Any train delays cost money. When Network Rail takes possession of the network for maintenance, it has to make payments to train companies to reflect the financial impact of their business, known as Schedule 4. It also pays train companies for the long-term impact of disruption to their business if there is a fault on the line that means trains cannot run, or there is congestion on the network due to engineering works. 


Similarly, rail users – both passengers and freight users – are eligible for refunds and compensation for cancellations or delays to the service. According to Department of Transport research in 2023, 52% of passengers surveyed had experienced delays that were eligible for compensation. 


There is an additional knock-on effect from a poor user experience. Simply put, if a passenger’s journey is disrupted by scheduled or unscheduled maintenance work, or an incident arising from damage on the track, they are less likely to travel by train in the future. 


All in all, the costs of delays caused by track maintenance or track failure can be significant. Anything that helps reduce delays, helps reduce the financial impact to everyone concerned.  

Again, IIoT solutions such as SWiX enable maintenance operations plans to be optimised. Data from its sensors provide visibility about the condition of critical assets like switches and crossings, and the track bed, to inform decisions about whether intervention is needed or not. 


Remote condition monitoring by SWiX runs continuously for years, providing accurate electronic measurement of changes detected over time. The data may show the gradual deterioration of an asset, which means that track maintenance teams can predict and schedule maintenance in the most cost-effective way.  


Savings from extending asset life 

One outcome of the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) review of CP7 in June last year is that Network Rail has increased spending on core railway infrastructure like track, structures and earthworks, by £600 million to boost asset sustainability, safety and performance. This will be focused on carrying out fewer renewals and doing more to maintain existing assets to extend their life. 


It makes sound economic sense to increase the longevity of key assets. Using sensors to monitor asset performance over time is a critical element to this. Using tools like SWIX provides accurate insight into the condition of switches and crossings, track bed, etc. They flag a problem before it becomes a major concern, or too late to be repaired. As a result, this monitoring, which is continually running in the background and requires no intervention from track maintenance teams, increases the life span of critical assets on the railway.


SCT’s solution gives infrastructure and maintenance staff an understanding of the activity required now. It also means that, as well as preventing the risk of under-maintaining assets that might go on to fail, rail companies can also avoid unnecessary and costly over-maintenance of assets that don’t require any. 


Increased safety and cost savings – a win for all 

While, quite rightly, a great deal of our focus at SCT is on the safety aspects of track maintenance teams, our solutions make a significant contribution to cost-savings across Network Rail and our many other customers. Our smart monitoring solutions can protect rail assets and increase their lifespan, while also averting catastrophic failures such as derailment. We like to think that the reliability and quality engineering built into our solutions helps track maintenance engineers sleep better at night. By providing intelligent routes to cost-savings across the network, we also help financial planners and accountants get some well needed rest as well.  





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